The true identity of the world’s most famous ghoul remains a mystery; was Dracula a vampire, a warlord or an Irish wizard? Was he real or was he a character inspired by more than one living person? Did he roam the dark, forested mountains of Transylvania or a remote and mystical region of Ireland?
The origins of the vampire are uncertain; where and when these legends originated is open to much debate and even the exact details surrounding the life of the man who is said to have been Dracula author Bram Stoker’s inspiration are murky. Was Vlad Tepes (pronounced tse-pesh) – a Romanian Prince and warlord known as “the Impaler” – Stoker’s inspiration or was the bloodsucker a literary incarnation of an undying Irish chieftain who was also rumored to be a wizard? Historical research provides the following – although not only – possible origins:
Late in the year of 1431 Vlad III, son of Vlad Dracul, was born in Transylvania, a mountainous region of what is now Romania. Dracul was, at that time, the military governor of the region, but his sights were set on the throne of Wallachia – the kingdom to the south, over which his ancestors had ruled. In 1436 he succeeded in winning the throne of Wallachia and struggled, for the next few years, to appease the two mighty empires of Hungary and Ottoman Turkey, between which his small kingdom found itself. After almost a decade of sporadic war and uneasy truces, the Hungarian forces suffered a heavy defeat at the hands of the Turks. Vlad II had declined to join the Hungarian crusade and, in a probable act of revenge, he was assassinated in 1447.
In 1456, Vlad III defeated the Wallachians in battle and regained his father’s throne. He ruled for the next six years and his reign ultimately earned him both praise for defending the region against invading Turks and revulsion for his barbaric slaughter of all who opposed or angered him. He is credited with the torture and murder of anything from a few thousand to 100 thousand people. Although it is said that enthusiastically indulged in various forms of torture and mutilation, he is most famously known for the practice of impaling his enemies on wooden stakes; be they Turkish prisoners, German merchants, wealthy landowners or common thieves. It is said that, in 1460, he had ten thousand impaled in one Transylvanian city.
In 1462, he was forced to flee from invading Turks. He made his was to Transylvania and was imprisoned by Matthius Corvinus, the Hungarian King. Some time around 1466, he was released from captivity and finally regained the throne of Wallachia in 1476. Shortly thereafter, however, he found himself facing a large invading Turkish force and, without allies, met them with a force of around only 4000 men. In December of that year, Vlad Dracula was killed in battle. The Turks took his head to Constantinople where it was displayed on a stake.
Some 700 – 800 years before the warlord Vlad Tepes – or Vlad Dracula – carried out his reign of terror, a tyrannical Irish king terrorized his subjects, practiced sorcery – or so it was said – and even defied death. Perhaps this feared Irish chieftain and wizard was the real vampire.
Abhartach was feared by the people over whom he ruled. They suspected him of practicing evil magic and appealed to Catha’n, chieftain of the neighboring territory, to rid them of this terrifying tyrant. Catha’n killed Abhartach and had him buried upright, which was the traditional burial ritual for a chieftain. Abhartach returned the next day, however, and demanded of his petrified subjects that they slice their wrists and fill a bowl with the blood, so that he might drink it to sustain his corpse. Catha’n also returned and killed Abhartach once again, but the dead chieftain rose from his grave again the next day and returned to, once again, demand his bowl of blood.
Unsure of what to do, Catha’n, the tale goes, consulted a saint – some versions of the story say a druid – who explained to him that Abhartach was one of the neamh-mhairbh, or “walking dead” and also a “drinker of human blood”. He could not be killed, but could be contained or restrained by being “suspended”. Following his advisor’s instructions, Catha’n stabbed his undead adversary with a sword made of wood. He then had him buried upside down, surrounded by thorns and had a huge stone placed over him.
The place of Abhartach’s burial is known in Ireland as the “Giant’s Grave.” Several urban legends – or true stories – have grown up around the site. It is said that, around the base of a tree which stands on the gravesite, no grass will grow.
Bram Stoker, the author of the novel Dracula, was born in Dublin, Ireland, in 1847. His most famous work was published in 1897. Where, exactly, he took his inspiration for the dreaded, murderous bloodsucker, however, remains unclear; In the Romanian language, “Dracul” translates as “the dragon” and “Dracula”, therefore, as “son of the dragon”. Vlad’s father was a member of an order of Christian knights known as The Order of the Dragon. The word “Drac”, however, has another translation: It means “devil.” The name has a possible Irish origin, however. Whilst delivering a lecture to the National Folklore Commission in 1961, the Registrar spoke of a place which he referred to as Du’n Dreach-Fhoula (pronounced droc’ola). The name of that place translates as “Castle of the Blood Visage” and was reputed to be inhabited by “blood-drinking fairies.”
Was Dracula, therefore, a Romanian warlord and Prince or a despotic Irish wizard and was his character based upon an actual vampire? Both Ireland and Eastern Europe have traditions of vampire legends. Much of the detail surrounding each of these stories varies from one account to another. It may turn out that truth is, indeed, stranger than fiction.
Graham J Noble